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‘Not doing anything is no longer acceptable’: Q&A with Alice Thomas, climate refugee expert

A mass grave for children in Dadaab during the 2011 East Africa drought. Photo courtesy of Oxfam.

  • Mongabay spoke with Alice Thomas, an expert on climate refugees, about the growing impact of climate change on the refugee crisis worldwide.
  • To date, no one has been able to claim asylum due to climate change because the official definition of a refugee does not allow for climate-induced migration.
  • One of the least-understood aspects of climate migration, however, is that most migrants won’t be leaving their country, but will be moving within their national borders.
  • Smarter, better policies could not only mitigate such migrations, but allow communities to adapt to ongoing changes due to climate change, Thomas says.

In many ways, 2018 is the year of the refugee. At U.S. borders, Mediterranean shores and Asian cities, millions are fleeing war, hunger and persecution in search of safety and shelter. And scientists believe things will only get worse due to climate change.

The Office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that rising seas, intensifying droughts and other extreme weather events will uproot 250 million people by 2050. Like most other refugees, climate refugees are expected to come largely from developing nations in Africa, Asia and South America. But unlike those escaping war and persecution, climate refugees have few legal protections.

“The 1951 Refugee Convention’s definition of ‘refugee’ does not include people who are fleeing environmental stress,” says Alice Thomas, the climate displacement program manager at the nonprofit group Refugees International (RI). To date, no individual has been able to successfully claim asylum on the grounds that they are fleeing climate change, Thomas says, though some have tried.

And there is another climate reality, according to Thomas, that is rarely recognized: the fact that most climate-affected migrants will not be leaving their countries.

“International migration is really complex. Most people, the poorest people, can’t afford to migrate internationally,” she says. “There needs to be focus on these what we call ‘trapped populations’; people who are too poor to even move and escape climate effect.”

A 2018 World Bank report suggests that these trapped populations might number over 140 million people by 2050. That’s why Thomas says countries worldwide need an internal migration policy. Such policies should help people who need to move and resettle within their own nation so they are not stateless. Smart climate change adaptation policies may even make it possible so that people don’t have to move in the first place.

“They need to build resilience to more drought. They need to build houses that are hurricane and flood proof,” Thomas says. “That’s why it’s the poorest people who are most affected. People living in informal homes or shacks in Bangladesh or Haiti or even in Puerto Rico are among those who will be worst-affected and most likely to be compelled to move.”

Thomas has been working on these very issues for nearly a decade. In an interview with Bhanu Sridharan for Mongabay, the former environmental lawyer breaks down the issue of climate migration and steps that need to be taken both internationally and by individual nations to help the most vulnerable adapt to a crisis not of their making.

Alice Thomas, program manager for climate displacement at Refugees International. Image courtesy of Refugees International.

Mongabay: How did you become interested in climate change and the potential for climate change to lead to migration and the refugee crisis?

Alice Thomas: I am an environmental lawyer. I have practiced international environmental law and policy for most of my career. When Refugees International decided to start this program, there really weren’t any other organizations at that time [2009] that were focused on the need to do advocacy around the human impacts of climate change, specifically on displacement and migration. I was very interested in this job because I was very interested in defending communities who were vulnerable to climate change and because those who were most likely to be impacted were those who had the least responsibility for the climate crisis. 

Can you tell us a little bit more about Refugees International? What is your organization’s objective with regard to climate migration?

Refugees International is an independent nongovernment organization that advocates for improved assistance and protection for refugees, those who are displaced internally within their own countries, and who are displaced by other events like climate change, disasters and gang violence. The organization has been around for almost four decades advocating for refugees around the world. It is a totally independent organization. We don’t take any U.N. funding and we don’t take any government funding. And that allows us to advocate fiercely only on behalf of displaced people who are our constituents.

RI’s climate displacement program is focused on different countries that are experiencing climate stress. One goal has been to improve international protection for people who are forced to flee their home countries because of climate change. The other goal has been to find ways to improve the response to people who are displaced by extreme weather or climate change-related effects.

Human beings have been moving because of environmental changes for millennia. What is the difference between that and the climate migration we see today?

Well, it’s true that people have been moving for millennia. Migration has always been an adaptation strategy for people who are experiencing environmental stress. To this day, in large parts of Africa, pastoralists move because they need to go where there’s pasture and there’s water.

The problem with climate change is that it takes us outside the historic bounds of weather and climate ranges that people have adapted to over millennia. It’s taking us into extremes beyond what’s normal. People can’t adapt to those changes fast enough.

For example, in Africa, especially the Sahel region and the Horn of Africa, people are extremely vulnerable to even minor changes in weather and climate. They are extremely poor and depend solely on rain-fed agriculture to survive. Their planting seasons correspond to rainy seasons that occur maybe twice a year. Once it starts raining, they’ll plant and harvest their crop. But now what they are seeing — and I’ve witnessed this when I visited — is that the patterns of rain are no longer normal. The rains will start on time, and they will go out and plant, but then the rains will just stop, and their crops will wither and die. These changes in rainfall patterns can affect their ability to grow food. And because it’s outside the normal pattern, they can’t predict or plan for it.

Extreme events like a prolonged drought in the Sahel region are causing a massive environmental migration crisis. Image by Pablo Tosco/Oxfam via Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Most people use the term “climate refugee.” But people who are displaced by environmental events can’t claim asylum or protection as refugees right now. Why is that?

That’s correct. The 1951 Refugee Convention’s definition of “refugee” does not include people who are fleeing environmental stress. Other regional conventions could potentially cover people who are fleeing climate change-related effects. But there haven’t been any cases that I am aware of where people have been granted asylum only on the grounds that they were fleeing climate change. There was one case in New Zealand where someone from [the islands of] Kiribati tried to claim asylum on that ground. But the court found that there was not a sufficient showing of climate impacts on that person to qualify for asylum.

Your organization has been engaged in the development of the U.N. Global Compact on Refugees and Migration recently. Was this issue raised in the meeting? Are there steps being taken now to correct this?

There are actually two global compacts happening in parallel. One is a Global Compact on Refugees and the other is a Global Compact on Migration. The Refugees Compact is limited in scope to refugees as defined under the 1951 Convention. So it will not end up being a document that would broaden the definition of a refugee to include persons forced to flee the effects of climate change. And that’s not what it was trying to do. It was trying to address the current refugee crisis. But it acknowledges that there may be forms of mixed movement where people may be trying to flee both conflict and the effects of climate change.

The Global Compact on Migration is a different beast. It is setting out new (non-binding) commitments by governments around the world with respect to international migration. There is consensus in the room among U.N. member states that there needs to be cooperation on how to address the issue of climate- and disaster-induced migration. And there’s recognition that the countries that are going to be the worst impacted by this, especially small island developing states, really need to have new opportunities for migration for their people.

What sorts of solutions are being looked at with small island developing states?

The small island developing states have been for a long time — gosh, probably more than a decade — asking the international community to do something about the risk that they are facing. They have brought this issue to the U.N. Human Rights Council and there’s recognition that this is a violation of their peoples’ human rights and a threat to their existence. But there’s been no real solution to this.

We are now aware that the impacts of climate change are already locked in for small island states. Given that reality, they are now urging the international community to support them to adapt to those effects, including expanding legal migration pathways.

Climate change is likely to submerge several small island nations across the world. Island nations want a plan for safe and orderly legal migration for their citizens. Image by Mongabay.

What role does the Paris Agreement play in dealing with this issue?

Climate change as a driver of migration and displacement has been recognized earlier by the Conference of Parties (COP) to the U.N. climate convention. The Paris accord set up a task force in late 2015 to look at measures to avert, minimize and address climate displacement. The task force is now working to develop a set of recommendations that it will be sharing at the upcoming climate talks in Poland, at the end of this year. And countries need to start looking at those recommendations and adopting them in their national plan of action. And we need to ensure that countries that need financial assistance to implement those measures get financial assistance.

Refugees are increasingly unwelcome in big developed nations like the U.S. and parts of the EU. Do these countries have a different stance on climate migrants?

The U.S. has traditionally been and continues to be the lead donor for humanitarian assistance globally. However, the current administration’s proposed budget sought to slash humanitarian aid and that’s including to countries that have been the worst affected by climate change. Luckily, we continue to have bipartisan support in Congress for humanitarian assistance programs. So proposals by the administration to significantly cut back humanitarian aid have been rejected and humanitarian support maintained, although it is still nowhere near as much as is needed.

But we still need to see more investment for disaster risk reduction and much more for climate change adaptation. Even under former administrations, [the U.S.] hadn’t done enough to help countries adapt to climate change, but it was making an effort. Under this administration we have seen funding for climate change adaptation zeroed out.

Europe in this time period has really stepped up a lot in dealing with climate mitigation and humanitarian assistance, but unfortunately they do not have a very friendly refugee or migration policy right now. Canada has emerged as a real leader in all ways.

A lot of migration is internal, i.e. people moving within their own country. Are you concerned about that aspect as well? Or are you only concerned when people have to leave their nation-state and move to another country?

Right now, the evidence shows that most people [affected by climate change] will migrate or be displaced internally. So it needs to be addressed. And I feel there is a lot of opportunity in the coming decade to prevent this sort of migration. To help people who don’t want to move and stay in place adapt.

But for those migrating, we also need to prepare for that as well. Part of the problem is that there’s no policy for internal migration in most countries. This has all come to a head in Alaska, where impoverished indigenous communities want to relocate because the Arctic is warming so quickly. There are dozens of native Alaskan communities that want to move inland, because they are literally falling into the water as the permafrost melts beneath them. They don’t even want to move very far inland. But there is no legal or administrative framework to do that. They don’t have federal or state funds to set up infrastructure in advance of their move. So this lack of policies and laws for internal migration is also a very big gap right now.

Do you think focusing on poverty alleviation or infrastructure in the countries impacted may help?

Fighting poverty will help, but all of our policies, whether humanitarian strategies or development strategies, need to incorporate climate change. They need to do things differently than they did in the past. They need to build resilience to more drought. They need to build houses that are hurricane- and flood-proof. That’s why it’s the poorest people who are most affected. People living in informal homes or shacks in Bangladesh or Haiti or even in Puerto Rico are among those who will be worst-affected and most likely to be compelled to move.

Infrastructure such as homes and roads need to be equipped to deal with environmental impacts like the flooding in Puerto Rico, says Alice Thomas. Image by Sgt. Jose Diaz-Ramos, via U.S. Department of Defense (public domain).

Are there any wealthy communities that have also been forced to move because of climate stress?

It’s almost always that poor communities don’t have the resources to move and those are the people we are focused on. But if you look at Hurricane Katrina [in New Orleans], you had a city with both poor and rich communities. A lot of wealthy people with means who lost their homes in the storm were able to rebuild their homes to better standards or they just went somewhere else. They were able to find what we call a “durable solution” to their displacement. What the evidence shows is that the people who didn’t find a durable solution to displacement were poor African-American communities living in the Lower Ninth ward.

I think that after disasters, wealthy people are able to rebuild or move. They did so in the Florida Keys after Hurricane Irma and in Puerto Rico. But the people who lived in the trailer parks in the Keys, I don’t know what happened to those people.

I think the issue of climate migration garnered a lot of attention because of the Syrian crisis, the idea that a drought led to the civil war and that led to displacement. What do you think?

With respect to Syria, I haven’t analyzed the situation myself, but I think the literature shows that it hasn’t been firmly established that there was a direct link between the drought and civil war. And that corresponds to the broader literature. There are not many cases where climate events, like droughts, directly led people to pick up arms and go to war with each other. Rather, the evidence shows that climate-related disasters can lead to other forms of social stress or mental stress. They can also aggravate pre-existing tension. Where societies are predisposed to racial or ethnic tensions, climate change can aggravate the situation.

Are there any examples of this?

Well, in Somalia there’s been another very protracted drought and more than 800,000 people have been internally displaced. And there the terrorist organization Al-Shabaab has been taking advantage of this and intimidating people who need food and water. They have been blocking humanitarian aid from coming into affected areas.

Drought victims from Somalia arrive at a relief camp in neighboring Ethiopia. Extreme drought has displaced over 10 million people in the Horn of Africa region. Image by Cate Turton/Department for International Development via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]

Mostly this doesn’t sound like a cheerful job. Are you optimistic that progress will be made?

As much as I have been frustrated by the slow pace of action, the fact that you’re seeing this climate displacement task force within the UNFCCC and the Global Compacts on Migration and Refugees trying to create international cooperation on this, represents important progress. When I started eight years ago, we didn’t have that. So we have seen that discussions have moved; states have moved. Even in a really bad political climate, even in a xenophobic political climate, even in an anti-refugee political climate, we have seen common sense and human morality prevail. Not doing anything is no longer acceptable.

Banner image of the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya during the 2011 East Africa drought. Image courtesy of Oxfam.

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